Context, Culture, and Usability

by Kirk St.Amant | STC Fellow

This column examines different aspects of technical communication in global contexts. Email the editor at

Usability is about context. If you know where someone performs a process, you can develop materials for that setting. The idea is conforming content to context makes that content easy to use. Today’s global economy complicates this situation by increasing the contexts in which individuals use products. Technical communicators can address this challenge by identifying central factors affecting usability in different settings.

Objectives, Contexts, and Use

Individuals use products to achieve specific objectives (e.g., using a hammer to pound a nail). This objective of use means we assess usability based on how well a product lets us achieve our objective for using it. However, the location where processes take place can vary from person to person. These differences can affect the perceived usability of a product.

Consider the process of changing a tire. The objective is to replace one tire (a flat) with another (a spare). The size of the space where you perform this process affects what you can do (e.g., how you can apply leverage to use a tire iron to loosen nuts or a lever to work a jack). Likewise, the amount of light in that setting affects what you can see and do in that location. Technical instructions for changing a tire need to be designed to address such factors for them to be usable in that setting. This relationship between content (the information individuals can use) and contexts (where they use that content) determines what constitutes the usable design—or usability of a product.

Variables, Context, and Use

Designing for such context of use involves identifying the factors affecting how we use materials in an environment. These variables of use can differ from setting to setting, but they are often connected to our past experiences and related expectations.

The idea works as follows: the more you perform a task in a setting, the more you view that setting as the context in which you will attempt to achieve a particular objective. If, for example, every time I’ve had to change a tire it was in an open, well-lit, and quiet space, I would consider that setting the standard context for performing that process. The variables of use are those factors I expect to be in that setting based on my prior experiences changing a tire, and I will consider materials designed to meet these contextual expectations as more usable. Past experiences of use thus dictate future expectations of usability.

Location, Expectation, and Use

If you own a car, where do you expect to drive it? What conditions are present in those contexts, and how might they limit what you can do when you need to change a tire? These factors can vary by nation and can affect the experience-based expectations individuals have for a context of use. Similarly, the tools that come “standard” with a car are based on experiences, and they affect expectations of what one can and cannot do based on the tools one expects to use. So do societal factors—such as the laws dictating where and when one can change a tire—and cultural norms dictating who may perform this action, when, and how. All these aspects can differ from nation to nation, and each can affect context-based expectations of usability.

The problem is certain variables might be easier to identify than others. For example, information on the kinds and conditions of roads in a nation can be easy to locate via data about a nation’s climate, geography, and infrastructure (see, for example nation-specific entries found online at Knowing who can and cannot change a tire according to societal convention, however, requires a broader understanding of culture and its complexities. Technical communicators need to consider all of these factors when researching the contexts of use in different nations. A modified version of schema theory can help with this process.

Schemas, Characteristics, and Expectations

Schemas encompass the mental models we have for what something should look like. When, for example, I say the word “garage,” a particular visual pops to mind. That visual is the ideal version of what I think a garage should look like. This ideal is comprised of different elements—or characteristics—I expect to be present for me to consider a location to be a garage. These factors include:

  • Who I expect to be there to perform certain activities (e.g., mechanics who change a tire).
  • What items I expect to be present in that setting (e.g., a tire iron and jack for changing a tire).
  • How I expect to get items into that context (e.g., how I drop my car off for servicing).
  • How I expect to get items out of that context (e.g., how I leave with my car after servicing).

These factors shape my expectations of what I can and cannot do in a given setting.

Experience is key to these associations. The more I encounter certain factors or characteristics in a context, the more I expect them to be present. Similarly, the more I see certain activities done in a certain way in that setting, the more I expect that activity to take place—in that way—in that setting. So, if I know where the members of a culture expect to undertake an objective (e.g., change a tire), I know what characteristics to look for to determine what can and cannot be done, by whom, with what, and how in that setting. Using these characteristics as a guide, I can do research to map—or identify—the variables the members of a culture associate with usability in that context.

Methods, Maps, and Models

Understanding the usability expectations of another culture requires technical communicators to collect data directly from the members of that culture. Effective methods for such data collection include interviews of individuals from a culture and focus groups comprised of members of that culture. In both cases, technical communicators need to ask the members of a culture the following questions:

  • Objective: What are you trying to do/achieve?
  • Setting: Where will you be when you perform this process?
  • Objects: What items will you use to perform this activity? Which of these items will be in that setting?
  • Individuals: Who is usually in this setting, and does that person help with the activity? (If so, how or what do they do?)
  • Access: How did you enter or get to this setting? If you need help or have questions while performing this activity, how do you get such help or answers?
  • Exits: When performing this process, do you record information to share it with others outside of that setting? If so, with whom and how do you share this information? How do you move from one place to another when you are done with an activity?

Technical communicators can use the answers to these questions to determine:

  • Where the members of a culture perform a given activity connected to a particular objective (context).
  • Who is expected to be in that context, and what activities they are expected to perform.
  • What items are individuals in that context expected to use.
  • How one gets needed materials and information into and out of that context.

Technical communicators can use the resulting answers to create a model (i.e., an image) of what a particular context of use looks like to the members of a given culture. They can then use this model as a guide for developing usable materials for this setting.

Once an initial context model or image is created, technical communicators should again use interviews or focus groups to have members of the related culture review this model and discuss how a particular task is performed in this setting. Technical communicators could then modify the model based on audience feedback until it addressed the most common expectations across the widest range of users (i.e., the general cultural ideal or model of that context). This revised image or model could then serve as a reference point technical communicators could use when creating materials for certain international settings.

Addressing these factors means collecting data from the members of the actual audience or culture as directly as possible. Such interactions could be done in person (or by a proxy working in the nation being studied) or by synchronous online media such as WebEx, Skype, or Google Hangouts. In selecting a technology (or technologies) for such interactions, the technical communicator should first review the online connectivity available in different nations (e.g., bandwidth, software used, etc.) and identify media that allow access to the widest range of individuals for a prospective product.


As global markets for technical products grow, so does the need to address the usability expectations of different cultures. The concept of schemas can help technical communicators map cultural contexts in a way that provides insights on usability expectations in different parts of the world. Through such approaches, technical communicators can better understand and address the nuances of usability in today’s global marketplace.

Further Reading

St.Amant, Kirk. Cultural Considerations for Communication Design: Integrating Ideas of Culture, Communication, and Context into User Experience Design. Communication Design Quarterly. 4.1 (2015): 6–22.

St.Amant, Kirk. Culture and the Contextualization of Care: A Prototype-Based Approach to Developing Health and Medical Visuals for International Audiences. Communication Design Quarterly. 3.2 (2015): 38–47.

St.Amant, Kirk. Of Scripts and Prototypes: A Two-Part Approach to User Experience Design for International Contexts. Technical Communication. 64.2 (2017): 113–125.

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